Issues over ideology: FSU researcher finds polarized candidates can still represent constituents best

Doug Ahler, assistant professor of political science

America’s seemingly polarized elected officials might be the best representation of their constituents, according to a new study out of Florida State University.

Researchers found politicians’ stances on issues such as immigration and abortion matter more to voters than their overarching ideologies.

Doug Ahler, an assistant professor of political science, and his colleague David Brockman of Stanford Graduate School of Business, recently had their findings published in the Journal of Politics.

“There’s a long strand of psychology and political behavior research that suggests citizens don’t really think ideologically, that they don’t evaluate candidates based on how liberal or conservative they are,” Ahler said. “When it comes to policy — what really matters are the individual issues.”

Beginning in 2014, researchers surveyed more than 1,200 people who indicated their agreement or disagreement with a variety of statements such as “Same-sex couples should be allowed to marry.” This helped researchers calculate where voters fell on an ideological scale from 0 to 100 with 0 being very liberal and 100 being most conservative.

Two months later, they presented those same participants two hypothetical candidates and their positions and asked which candidate reflected their views more. Another study provided participants with a politician that matched them ideologically, but didn’t match respondents on the issues. Both tests revealed the same — ideology didn’t matter.

“If the candidate was likely to be liberal, but the voter was mostly conservative — if the voter’s liberal views were the same views the candidate had, the voter would actually pick the liberal in our study over a candidate likely to be conservative,” Ahler said. “That happened nearly 70 percent of the time — the voter would choose the candidate who was a ‘bad’ ideological fit.”

Ahler and Brockman also examined data from the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, a large-scale academic survey aimed at studying the midterm Congressional elections. They used U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff’s voting behavior in 2009 as an initial case study.

The two examined a concept they dubbed “The Delegate Paradox,” which addresses the idea that politicians who represent their constituencies as closely as possible on every issue can still appear polarized and out-of-step ideologically.

“We wondered how this liberal candidate (Schiff) could represent this moderate district,” Ahler said. “What we found was 60 percent of his constituents voted liberally on every single issue, but it was a different 60 percent on each issue.”

Schiff voted liberally on all five bills that appeared in the election study. However, the constituents surveyed voted with a mix of liberal and conservative views for and against bills such as the Clean Energy Act and Obamacare. This ultimately meant that despite Schiff voting with the majority of his constituents on every issue surveyed, he still appeared more liberal than his average constituent base.

Of the several studies conducted, researchers felt it was a case study of Donald Trump that was most telling.

Based on their ideological scale, scholars found those who voted in the Republican primary who had moderate scores near 50, preferred Trump a lot more than those who measured on the conservative end of the scale. However, it wasn’t the moderation of the citizens that caused them to favor Trump, but their extreme positions on some of the more liberal and conservative issues.

“People that shared the extreme right wing immigration attitude and left-wing economic positions on taxes voted for Trump, while someone who wanted lower taxes and more open borders were more likely to vote for Rand Paul,” he said. “That tells us it’s the actual issues that matter.”

Even though Trump measured as ideologically moderate on the scale, it would be inappropriate to deem Trump as representing the vast majority of Americans’ views, according to researchers.

Ahler and Brockman urge voters and political enthusiasts to refrain from assuming that ideologically moderate candidates would best represent constituents.

“When you use statistical tools you get this paradox where a member of Congress does best representing his or her constituents on the issues by voting with the party 100 percent of the time,” Ahler said. “This supports the idea that maybe members of Congress are doing the best they can to represent their constituents on the issues and that’s what’s leading them to look extreme.”

Ahler said future research could explore the question of “extremity” and what causes certain voters to support ideas outside of mainstream views. He also suggests further examination of constituents’ sentiment on issues such as abortion and gun control to have a better understanding of where citizens stand on some of the country’s most polarizing topics.